When Brands Dream of Electric Sheep.

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As we approach the Turing test threshold, what happens when brands become aware?

We’re entering a new wave of brand building, one that will bring with it a host of new questions and opportunities. The first wave was brands built largely through communications. The second wave was brands built through utility. At hatch, we believe the third wave, ushered in by new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, will be brands built through consciousness.

A brand can be many things, but at its most powerful, a brand codifies a company’s ethos to act as a sort of operating system, a set of rules that informs everything the company makes, does and says. Today, a brand’s operating system informs people — company staff and, to a degree, the consumers who value the brand. Brand operating systems are powerful. When a company lives in accordance with its brand operating system, the brand is built exponentially (everyone at Airbnb is in the business of making people belong, while the team at Red Bull endeavors to give you wings). Act in discord with the operating system and the brand will be damaged or destroyed (see scandal-plagued Volkswagen’s brand vision: http://together.volkswagenag.com)

Through hatch, we’re beginning to apply brand operating systems more literally, using them to program artificially intelligent machines such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Microsoft Cortana. Platforms like these use a conversational interface that lends the brand a rudimentary sense of personality. Unlike advertising, where the brand speaks to a passive audience, or digital experiences, where a user interacts with a brand through clicks or swipes, here users actually converse with the brand. As a result, when programming for these services, we find ourselves asking new questions of the brand, questions that add more specificity to the operating system. Questions like: What is the brand’s vocabulary? Does the brand have a sense of humor? What are the brand’s quirks? Yet, we’re probably just scratching the surface.

As sophisticated as AI assistant platforms are today, the future will certainly bring even more life-like technologies. Futurist Ray Kurzweil named the date (and placed a $20,000 wager: http://longbets.org/1/) when a machine will pass the Turing test: 2029. This means that very soon we will have interactions with artificially intelligent services that will be indistinguishable from interacting with a human.

In this era, we believe companies will seek to bring their brands to “life” as sentient, conscious beings — artificially intelligent services that will establish human-like relationships with consumers.

We’ve seen a glimpse of this future in movies like Spike Jonze’s Her or Alex Garland's Ex Machina. In both films, the artificially intelligent characters are so charmingly lifelike that their male counterparts eventually fall in love with them. Could conscious brands — brands that are constantly available, always interested in the consumer, supportive and undemanding — create equally strong emotional bonds? Today, Bud Light celebrates male friendship. (http://www.adweek.com/brand-marketing/bud-light-raises-beer-bromances-new-famous-among-friends-spots-175698/) Tomorrow, could Bud Light actually be your friend?

It’s an interesting question. Regardless of the answer, we find it valuable to think of a brand as a living, breathing character, with motives and desires all its own. Even if the application of that thinking runs counter to today’s AI assistants or simply advertising, thinking about brands in this way gives us a deeper understanding of what makes them tick. In essence, the exercise adds powerful new rules and texture to the brand operating system to inform future activities.

How do you develop a conscious brand? It begins where all great brand building begins, by asking, “What is the brand’s purpose?” But to derive more human qualities and characteristics, consider asking instead, “What is the brand’s dream?” It’s a subtle twist, one that may help bring the brand to life.